Portugal’s allure is undeniable. Succulent seafood, the azure waters of the Algarve, welcoming people, a temperate climate, and a rich history. My first grand tour of Europe began in Portugal when I was 18 and my heart was instantly ensnared by its captivating beauty. Last year I returned and was thrilled to find the first love of my travelling life was still as enchanting as I remembered.
Landing in Lisbon, we were met by a dazzling display of burnt orange roofs, cobblestone streets, and walls awash in a lemony glow. Lisbon, with a population of 500,000, is a European gem, often forgotten in favor of bigger, showier competitors. But on this visit, I was reminded of why this beautiful grand dame deserves a second look.
My husband and I made our base the centrally located Tivoli Avenida Liberdade hotel. Poking around the lobby, I came across a history of the storied hotel and learned it had been Portuguese actress Beatriz Costa’s home for 30 years. The black and white film star once shared the silver screen with stars such as Marlene Dietrich and you can see her portrait outside her former suite. Getting into the hotel’s luxe vibe, one of the first things I did was splurge on an Anantara Signature massage. Tivoli is owned by the Minor Hotel Group, which also owns the Anantara spa brand. After my feet were washed in a bowl of warm water, I picked a lavender essential oil for my treatment and melted under the sure hands of my Thai masseuse.
That night, at Sky Bar, on the hotel’s 9th floor, I saw that the hotel still draws A-list guests. Out under the stars, beautifully attired folks lounged on comfy seats while looking out over the twinkling city. It was the perfect place to sip designer cocktails and delectable small bites.
The scene continued at the hotel’s Seen Restaurant where bartenders buzzed under a very real looking tree (the trunk was, the leaves were not) and wait staff served choice selections from “chefpreneur” Olivier da Costa’s tantalizing menu. Dishes were a combination of Brazilian, Portuguese and Japanese – Wagyu beef like butter, fresh caught Portuguese fish and Brazilian palm hearts were just a few of the treats we sampled.
The next day we walked Lisbon’s cobbled streets to burn off a few calories, and headed for St. Jorge Castle, strategically located on one of the city’s highest points. After a calf-tightening ascent, we caught our breath, admired the view and marched into the crumbling stone edifice. Built by the Moors in the mid-11th century, the castle became a home for royalty in the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries. After the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, new buildings were raised over the older ruins and by the 19th century military barracks covered the entire area. The castle and ruins of the former royal palace were rediscovered after restoration work in the late 1930s. We walked the circumference of the castle, admiring the eleven remaining towers and then admired a collection of artifacts found during the restoration.
The Moorish influence can be seen throughout the city in much of the architecture, but taking a tram overlooking the Tagus River towards Belem, we also noticed contemporary hotels and bustling emporiums such as the Time Out Market. By the time we reached Belem Tower, one of the most photographed historic sites in the city, the sun was going down. Now a UNESCO world heritage site, the structure was built in the 1500s to guard the estuary at the mouth of the Targus and later it served as a customs house. In that light, it almost glowed and it was easy to imagine mighty sailing vessels paying her tribute.
Portugal’s majestic past can also be seen in Sintra, a 30-minute drive from Lisbon. Nestled in the hills of the Serra de Sintra, it was the summer playground of royalty and is filled with whimsical palaces and mansions. Our first stop was the Pena Palace which sprang from the imagination of King Ferdinand II. Originally a 16th century monastery, the palace was converted into the king’s summer house in the late 1800s. After the king’s death, his son Carlos spent his holidays there until he was assassinated in 1908. The palace had a fairytale-like quality, was painted in gelato colours, and was filled with hidden nooks and crannies. When we finally emerged, the grounds were wrapped in fog thick as cotton wool and it felt as if we had been transported back to another century. Our visit to nearby Quinta da Regaleira, a world heritage site built at the end of the 19th century, had a similar feel. “We get a lot of fog here. It’s what makes Sintra so special,” the clerk at the ticket counter said.
Our hotel was equally spellbinding. The Tivoli Palacio de Seteais was built in the late 1700s for King John the 6th, who never lived there. At the start of of the French Revolution in 1779, he left for Brazil. Taking a tour of the property with a staff member, I learned most of the furniture, including handmade carpets and tapestries, was original. “A Dutch ambassador bought it as a summer house for his son, but he didn’t like it here. Too much fog,” noted my guide. There were many owners over the years and in 1955 it was converted into a hotel with two tennis courts, swimming pool, lemon garden, and mountain hiking and biking nearby.
These days, it is part of the Tivoli family and contains 30 guest rooms. The King and Queen of the Netherlands had stayed in our room two years prior, according to the guest book displayed in the lobby. Leafing through the book, I noticed other big name guests included Agatha Christie, Catherine Deneuve, David Bowie, and Mick Jagger. The hotel’s dining room was exquisite and one evening we decided to pair our meal with local wines from Colares.
We learned the winery gives guided tours by appointment and the next morning we went and met Francisco Figueiredo, the chief winemaker. He told us the winery is a co-op and was founded in 1931. “This is a very old wine area. Records show it goes back to the 1300s,” he explained. He noted the devastating blight of phylloxera (microscopic lice that eat the roots of grapevines) didn’t hit this region because the vines grow in sand. “The way we plant, we were protected. There is no water or nutrients in the sand for the lice.” He explained that trenches are dug through two to three meters of sandy soil, the vines are planted in better soil and then covered with sand. “The lice can’t tunnel down to the roots,” he noted. Sipping one of the reds, we noticed it had a lot of acidity and a slight bite of tannins, but also a softness since the wine is finished for a year in French Oak barrels.
Before departing, I wanted to paying my respects to Sintra’s wine industry, and went for a pampering Vinotherapy Facial in the hotel spa. Once the palace’s pigeon house, it had been remodeled into a high- end luxury facility. After the red grape mask and a quartz healing gemstone face massage I looked in the mirror. Did it help slow the aging process as promised? I wasn’t sure about that, but I was rested and ready for our next adventure.
The Algarve was our final destination and on the way to the sunny coast, we stopped in the walled city of Evora. History abounded everywhere, from the Roman temple, built in the 1st century AD, to the towering aquaduct from the 1500s that continues to supply city water today.
In particular, what caught my eye among the winding, cobblestone streets was the Chapel of Bones, attached to the Church of St. Francisco. Built in the 17th century to encourage reflection of mortality and Christianity, the chapel contained thousands of bones placed in decorative patterns on the walls. Just a tad unsettling.
Thankfully, all dark, macabre thoughts were banished by the time we reached the sun soaked Algarve. We checked into our hotel, Tivoli Carvoeiro a 248- room seaside spread that was refurbished in 2017, and prepared for our Carvoeiro Tuk Tuk tour of the area. Antonio arrived promptly in his lime green four-seater and we took off for an open air jaunt to a cliff-side trail, Alfanzina lighthouse, and two ceramic studios, Porches Pottery and Olaria Pequena (Little Pottery). Antonio explained that Porches
Pottery, was founded by Dublin artist Patrick Swift in 1962. Swift’s daughter Juliette was behind the counter. “We have 11 staff and nine painters. When we first came, we had moved from London where my father hung out with painters such as Lucien Freud and Francis Bacon in the pubs. Mother was glad to get out of London and the unhealthy lifestyle.” Juliette noted she couldn’t think of living anywhere else now. “I love it here. The Algarve is steeped in history and sunshine.” Speaking more with Juliette, I learned that her father reinvigorated a local art form that was dying out. “At one time there were a lot of studios making pottery for everyday use. When plastic came along, the studios started closing,” she explained. At Porches Pottery (Porches is the name of the small community where they are located) local artists paint the ceramics for the shop and also make custom pieces.
At Bacchus, a café attached to the shop lined with decorative tiles, I met owner Carlos, who had been born in Portugal but lived in Toronto for most of his life. Five years ago he and his wife Tina and son Rick came back to Portugal and took over the café. “I love the sun and lifestyle here,” Carlos explained.
The final stop on our tuk tuk tour was Olaria Pequena (Little Pottery) where we met owner Ian Fitzpatrick and his daughter Molly. Originally from Glasgow, Ian came to the Algarve after completing art college to work with a friend. “That was 38 years ago,” he said with a smile.
He opened his Olaria Pequena in 1983 outside the village of Porches and today his daughters Molly and Martha, also ceramics artists, give him occasional assistance. Olives and lemons are his main motifs. Although he uses traditional craft techniques, his work is fresh and contemporary and very much in demand.
Portugal has a way of capturing people’s hearts. There’s an easy warmth to the country that stays with you long after you depart. It’s a warmth that draws you back. For some, even to stay.
In Portugal they are everywhere, decorating walls of churches to palaces, parks, shops and railway stations. Often they portray historic scenes and sometimes they are simply street signs. The term azulejo comes from the Arabic word azzulayj, meaning “polished stone.” Inspired by the tiles in Spain’s Moorish-built Alhambra, King Manuel I had them installed in his palace in Sintra. Originally designed with geometric patterns as per Islamic law, the tiles became more intricate and included human and animal figures when Portuguese painters took up the art.
Lisbon – visitlisboa.com
Tivoli Hotels – tivolihotels.com
Sintra – sintra-portugal.com
Portugal – visitportugal.com